Saturday, June 9, 2012

Density Needs More 1/2

Something that struck me when I was researching my thesis paper was the generally accepted notion that density is good. Sprawl is definitely bad—the long-term economic impacts make sprawl fundamentally unsustainable—but is denser better?

Yes and no. From an economic standpoint the systems function far better when they are packed together. And this has been almost universally proven. But socially, dense development can be extraordinarily bad.

In cities where people are constantly shadowed by skyscrapers and jammed onto busy sidewalks along noisy and dangerous roads the advantages of density become outweighed by its perils. People, while they are forced to interact on a superficial level, are squeezed out of the urban environment by the technologies and structures meant to serve them.

When addressing the issue of sustainable cities, the problem is often framed by cars. Where do the cars go? How can car pollution be reduced? How can car trips be shortened and minimized? What are the economic effects of new roads in these places?

Alternately the problem is also seen as a matter of urban versus nature. How can people be kept within a growth boundary? What are the impacts of a development outside the city limits? How will housing prices be affected? Can the citizens live in these spaces if cost of living increases?

This is problematic. The wrong questions mean the right answers are impossible to find.

As addendums to these questions new theories and approaches are being developed that get to the underlying values much more accurately. The first is the blind man’s approach. Blind people have some of the most difficulty navigating a city. Blindness negates almost all of the cues that the sighted have developed to navigate a city. Imagine crossing a street blind during rush hour in a crowded intersection. I have by closing my eyes. It’s disorienting, and harrowing. Cars often turn without signaling, hybrids are nearly silent, and the cacophony ruins one’s ability to hear clearly. What’s more low hanging branches, poorly placed signs, and a myriad of other obstacles can make city navigation more than a little stressful.

If the blind residents cannot move freely then a city is not nearly as walkable as it purports. This was detailed much more in a recent Wired article.